It begins as a prickle in Jude’s neck, a faint annoyance she dismisses as she washes her face in the morning. Then it moves to her back and down her arms, an ache in her muscles she assumes is from her strenuous training session with the Ghost the day before. But later in the day, when her limbs begin to stiffen to the point she can barely move and her vision slows into a disoriented languidness, she knows.
Something is very, very wrong.
Fear shoots through her as she begins to lose control of her body. She stumbles out of the library she’s holed herself in for the day and into the hall.
Cardan. She needs to get to Cardan.
Her vision blurs as she pushes against her uncooperative muscles to the throne room. She grits her teeth, squinting to make out the person who has appeared in front of her.
“Your Highness? What’s wrong?” rings Fand’s voice, sounding far away.
“Cardan,” she gasps. “Get… Cardan.” She falls against the wall, needing support before her legs give out. Someone, maybe a guard, grasps onto her arm.
In what feels like seconds, she senses him enter the hall, and she uses the last of her strength to push herself towards him. Cardan catches her in his arms, and finally, she lets her eyes fall shut.
Distantly, as though she’s listening from under water, she hears Cardan bark orders at the guards. Then, “Jude, what’s wrong?” Hands move to her face, pushing back her hair, which has at some point become damp with sweat. “Jude, wake up.”
When she doesn’t respond, Cardan begins to shake her. “Jude, wake up.” The desperation in his voice cuts straight to her heart. The urge to comfort him wells up, and yet her reassurances get caught in her throat, her lips unwilling to move.
A familiar voice, the Bomb’s maybe, cuts in, words too fast for her to decipher. Movement, she’s being jostled against someone, and then she’s laid down.
“Her heart’s slowing! Where is the healer?!”
Another pair of hands is on her, opening her mouth and forcing a drink down. “Jude, you have to swallow.”
She forces the muscles in her throat to take the drink.
But her energy is seeping out of her grasp, the tempting pull of death calling her like a siren in the seas. It would be so easy to…
A hand squeezes hers tightly, tethering her to this world. “Jude, Jude, please. You need to wake up because I can’t do this without you.” A guttural sob rips out. “Please wake up.”
“Breathe, Jude, breathe!” The Bomb’s voice orders. “Breathe in Jude!”
Cardan’s voice is scratchy with desperation, and Jude clings onto it, the familiar cadence of his voice her only anchor. “Jude, please, I will do anything. Just breathe for me.”
She forces an inhale once, and her awareness instantly sharpens. The bed is soft against her back, and she feels wetness against the hand Cardan’s gripping.
Cardan hands tighten around hers. “Again, Jude. Breathe.”
Still, the second breath is harder, her body fighting back, and a wave of exhaustion pulls her under. She fights it with everything she has, but for once, her everything isn’t enough. She feels herself falling back, away from this world.
A sound of pure agony, somewhere between a sob and a whine, rips out of Cardan, and then everything begins to fade.
“The land!” The Bomb gasps. “It healed her last time. We have to try. You, get some dirt, or grass, or anything. Go!”
A moment later, brittle powder is dumped on her chest.
A palm presses onto her, and someone begs, “Please, please, please.”
For a second, everything is still.
Then, a slow, quiet warmth fills her chest, starting with her heart and winding through her body. Strength returns to her limbs, and her fingers twitch against Cardan’s as she inhales, glorious air filling her starved lungs.
Cardan lets out a sob of relief, and his head falls onto her chest, resting against the beat of her heart as she falls into a peaceful slumber.
Jude floats on the calm seas, her body drifting endlessly. The wind whistles through the salty air, a haunting, aching symphony of grief.
There is no peace here, just waiting. The sky is draped with clouds on the precipice of pouring out their contents. They shift drowsily, parting against the somber sky. Within them Jude sees her mother as she had seen her in the Lake of Masks, watching her from another time, amused by her fragile mortality. Her vision shifts, and then it is Cardan standing in front of her, leering at her.
His voice echoes with venom, spitting out words she has long forgotten. “Do you know what mortal means? It means born to die. It means deserving of death. That’s what you are, what defines you- dying.”
The vision ripples, and the Cardan of the past shifts into present Cardan. She sees him sitting on chair, shoulders slumped, hands grasping onto her sleeping body’s hands. His thumb brushes gently back and forth over her wrist. Shadows linger beneath his eyes, and he looks utterly defeated. Distantly, she feels his hands release hers, a brush of lips against her forehead, and then he pushes out of his seat, fists clenched, and leaves the room.
The waves begin to churn with a cold, brutal anger, the anger of an unrestrained, destructive sea. They careen her body back and forth, water splashing over her face and into her nose. Jude does not panic, simply shutting her eyes and letting herself fall into the inevitable.
Jude gasps, jerking upright. Her muscles ache with disuse, and she takes in her surroundings. She is in a foreign bed, blankets tucked caringly over her body. The room is sparsely decorated, bare except for the furniture. Besides the bed she’s in, there is a side table, a chair at the side of her bed, and another smaller bed squeezed in the corner, as though brought in after the room was furnished.
In the silence of the room, she senses a taut tension. She’s left the churning sea behind, yet a palpable rage remains in the land.
She swings her feet over her bed and is surprised to see grass growing in little patches of dirt around her bed. Her memory comes rushing back: fainting in Cardan’s arms, him pleading for her to breathe, the dirt on her body restoring her somehow, and then nothing.
She stumbles out of the room, her legs still sore, and bumps into a guard. His eyes widen in surprise. “My queen. You’re awake.”
“Where is the King?” she responds, her voice rough with disuse.
His eyes dart from hers, almost… fearful? “He has left the palace.”
“What?” Jude croaks, a sharp sting of hurt going through her. He left. Cardan left her.
A rush of footsteps comes from the end of the hall, and Jude looks up. Suddenly she’s enveloped in the Bomb’s arms. “You’re awake,” she breathes, voice full of relief.
Jude pulls away, questions flurrying through her. “What happened? Where’s Cardan?”
“Sit down. We need to make sure you’re okay first.”
Once the Bomb pulls her back into her room and forces her to sit and drink water, the Bomb sighs. “You were poisoned. It got through our defenses because it only affects mortals, so everyone else was fine. The Ghost sent news that he had an idea who did it, so Cardan left to find him.” She pauses, hesitant. “I tried to convince him to stay but he’s not listening to anyone.” The Bomb pauses, hesitant. “He’s been… different without you. He’s been impulsive and angry and… broken.”
Jude swallows, remembering his heart wrenching sobs, pleading with her to stay with him. The uncontrollable rage simmering through the land when she had woken up. “I need to see him.”
The Bomb nods in understanding. “I’ll send word immediately. The only reason he left was because he didn’t think you were going to wake up.”
“Why? How long was I out?”
The Bomb looks at her with concern. “Jude, you’ve been out for three weeks.”
For the rest of the day, after stuffing herself with food and taking a warm bath, the Bomb forces Jude to rest. Her body is still recovering from the toll the poison took on her, and already she feels the urge to sleep, despite having gotten three weeks’ worth of rest.
Jude flops onto bed. “I hate this. I need to do something. I can’t just sit here.”
The Bomb groans. “Jude, I don’t know if you realized this, but you almost died. So please, just do what I say. Cardan will kill me if anything happens to you again.”
She laughs. “Cardan could never. He hates blood.” Still, Jude wonders at the truth in the Bomb’s statement, wonders what lengths he would go to for her despite his aversion to violence.
“But he loves…” The Bomb’s words trail off as her glance catches on something over Jude’s shoulder. “I have to go,” she mutters, and quickly shuffles out of the room. Jude cranes her head to see what had caused her to depart so quickly.
Cardan stands frozen in the doorway, face pale, his gaze locked on Jude. His crown is noticeably absent, his hair windswept from riding. His cloak hangs from his shoulders, and her gaze catches on a splatter of blood marring the velvety cloth. A knife hangs in its sheath against his thigh, peeking out from behind the cloak, and Jude has a feeling he had used it.
“Cardan,” she breathes and stands from the bed, emotion welling in her chest.
He is throat bobs as he walks towards her, as if in a trance, and slowly traces his fingers over her jawline, gently across her neck and down her arm. When he reaches her wrist, his hand stops and his thumb presses to her pulse, its steady beat a reassurance.
“Jude,” he whispers finally, and his hands begin to tremble uncontrollably as they lift up to cradle her face. “Tell me this is real. Tell me this is not a cruel dream.”
Guilt consumes her at the simultaneous hope and fear in his voice. She cannot imagine what it had been like for him these past few weeks.
Tears brim her eyes as she whispers, “I’m here Cardan. This is real.”
His breath hitches, and then his arms retract around her, crushing her into his chest, squeezing her until she can barely breath. His voice is hoarse against her neck. “Do not ever do that to me again. I cannot survive it. I cannot.”
Jude tries not to think too much about the fact that he cannot lie and rubs her arms comfortingly up and down his back, burying her face in the warmth of his neck. They stay like that, wrapped around each other, until Jude remembers the exhaustion in Cardan’s eyes and crawls back up onto the bed, pulling Cardan with her.
When the Bomb finds them the next day, tangled in each other’s arms, she smiles softly and shuts the door behind her.